Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Mahler and Bernstein Conducted by MTT
San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas returned to town after a long hiatus with a program that looked superb on paper, but which turned out to be a disappointment. The first half was devoted to Leonard Bernstein's Symphony #2 which was supposed to be a loose musical interpretation of W.H. Auden's long World War Two era poem, The Age of Anxiety, about a group of New York barflies who spend a night together.
Many of Bernstein's attempts at "serious" composing during the 1940s and 1950s sound like they were lifted directly from Prokofiev, and much of this symphony sounded like a subpar Prokofiev piano concerto. There is a section near the end of the 30-minute piece where the sound gets jazzy, and the piano, played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet above, duets with the percussion section. You can finally hear Bernstein's actual composing voice and the effect is exciting, but it doesn't last very long. I heard David Robertson conduct this orchestra in the symphony in 2005, and thought the piece was a goofy mess that was fun and interesting, but in Sunday's matinee performance it simply sounded like a mess.
The second half was devoted to Mahler's Fourth Symphony, and I was wondering which MTT was going to show up to conduct, the inspired genius who elevates the orchestra into another sphere or what I think of as the taffy-puller Tilson Thomas where the conductor takes every pretty phrase and stretches them out so all tension and sense of musical line vanishes. Unfortunately, it was the latter guy on the podium, and the performance fell flat. In recent months, the San Francisco Symphony has sounded like one of the greatest orchestras in the world under a series of guest conductors such as Pablo Heras-Casado and Vasily Petrenko. It's a little disconcerting to have the Music Director return and the musical quality fall so noticeably, including a brass section plagued with flubs all afternoon long. Let's hope it was just a hiccup.